There are many different wine competitions out there, some more prestigious than others. How many awards a winery wins in any given year is directly related to how many of these competitions it enters, not how exceptional its wine is. If a wine is entered into 50 competitions, it is bound to get at least a few medals (one would hope, for the sake of the winemaker). If a wine is entered into zero competitions — well, then, you get the idea.
Something else happens in the big wine competitions that is also a little worrisome. The bottles for the competition don’t come from wine shop shelves — they come from the wineries.
Some of the giant wine producers will keep a couple of special barrels aside made specifically for competitions they plan to enter. These wines are better looked-after and higher in quality than those the producers distribute in mass quantity. Yet they enter these wines as though they are identical to what they have produced on a regular basis. They win a gold medal for a wine that the consumer will never see and then stick that gold medal on a mass-produced wine that the consumer must endure.
Let me make something clear: You cannot make a fine, well-crafted wine if you are producing hundreds of thousands of cases of it. You can make a decent wine, sometimes, but never a great wine deserving of gold medals and acclaim. It’s like comparing a classroom with 20 students and a classroom with 1,000 students; even if the teacher with an auditorium of 1,000 students is better, the students in a classroom of 20 will still learn more, because they get direct attention. When I see a gold medal on the label of a $5 bottle, it makes me chuckle.
There are times when I taste a wine that has done well at a judging and I think to myself, “How could this possibly have won?” A wine competition is only as credible as its judges, and their biases will always come into play. I’ve heard wine judges make such asinine comments as, “I don’t see any reason to drink wines not made in my region,” or “(A certain region) is incapable of making fine wines.” All wine competitions are subjective, to some extent.
The conclusion I have reached is that you will gain a lot more knowledge about the quality of a wine by looking at the winemaker’s reputation and the production rate than you will by looking at how many medals the wine has won. The next time you see a gold-medal $5 bottle of wine on the shelf, please keep walking. Take your chances with the bottle that says “fewer than 5,000 cases produced” on the back.
Austin Twohig is a certified sommelier and partner in The Santa Cruz Experience, which conducts winery tours in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.